A jury on Friday awarded more than $700,000 to a Spokane police detective after finding he was wrongfully fired and then retaliated against by Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.
The amount includes $250,000 in punitive damages against Kirkpatrick, who quickly left Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor’s courtroom with Assistant City Attorney Ellen O’Hara after the verdict was read. Both declined comment.
Detective Jay Mehring, 43, was reinstated at the advice of the city attorney’s office and given back pay after a jury acquitted him in October 2008 of allegations he’d threatened to kill his wife during a messy divorce. He’d been placed on unpaid layoff status in March 2007 after charges were filed, and Kirkpatrick held a press conference to inform the media. Despite his reinstatement, he’s been on paid administrative leave in what his lawyer, Bob Dunn, told jurors was retaliation for his lawsuit.
Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for the city of Spokane, said the verdict likely will be appealed.
She said Kirkpatrick “is trying to hold her officers to high standards, so we’re supporting her in that effort.”
“It’s always a balancing act to try to deal with discipline in the public sector, especially in the uniformed areas,” Feist said.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated for about five hours over two days.
Before deliberations began, O’Connor issued a partial verdict in Mehring’s favor, ruling that the city committed a violation when it laid off Mehring pending the resolution of his felony charge. Jurors then ruled that the city violated Mehring’s rights to due process, and that the city and Kirkpatrick intentionally or recklessly inflicted distress.
In addition to the punitive damages, the jurors awarded $45,675 in economic damages to cover Mehring’s expenses while he was unemployed and $427,000 for emotional distress and pain and suffering.
Milt Rowland, attorney for the city of Spokane, told jurors in his closing argument Thursday that Kirkpatrick had a right to place Mehring on unpaid leave amid troubling allegations that brought his mental stability into question.
“A police officer who’s doing his job shouldn’t be committing felonies, or probable cause for a felony,” Rowland said.
Dunn said Kirkpatrick ignored employment procedures in an effort to make herself look like a strong leader.
“Her cause was to move on to bigger and better places,” Dunn said.
By awarding punitive damages, jurors are “basically saying ‘Excuse us, but this conduct is so far over the top we are not going to allow you to get away with it,’ ” Dunn said.
Said Kirkpatrick of the verdict, “On one hand, the community has begged me and begged me to hold officers accountable and what do I get? But I’m not going to look the other way because I got a verdict against me.”
Dunn said the judgment will collect interest at 12 percent per year if the city appeals. He said he plans to seek a court order that the city pay Mehring’s attorney fees and costs, “which I suspect will be in excess of half a million dollars.”